Our loyal readers will be thrilled to hear that last week I went on vacation. While I was gone I let my colleagues know my vacation status through the traditional email out-of-office message.
"Please note that during this vacation I will not fall prey to certain conditions that often plague the highly connected knowledge worker of the modern workplace—specifically, the idea that, thanks to technology, the modern worker is 'always on' and 'always available'. To the contrary, during this personal time, I will hardly be available at all."
Some might think that my OOO was offered tongue-in-cheek, but it really wasn’t. I turned it all off and actually went on vacation. What a maverick.
It's no secret Americans are truly bad at taking time away from work—whether it's for ten minutes or ten days. We eat lunch at our desks, check email in bed and let vacation days fall by the wayside (instead of the beachside). In our workaholic world, the fact that eight in ten Americans report feeling stressed at their jobs almost seems understated.
"At the most basic level, I think the reason this is happening is because of a deep need for us to feel important and needed," says Dr. Tasha Eurich, executive coach and best-selling author of Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom Line Results and the Power to Deliver Both. But as Eurich shares, we're not delivering more value by punching additional hours on the clock: "Multiple studies show overworking ourselves causes us to be more depressed, more stressed out, less healthy and actually less successful at work."
Employees whose energy levels are in the red have created a snowball effect on the bottom line of their employers: A recent study from Oxford Economics shows that unused vacation time is costing companies hundreds of billions of dollars in liabilities—$224 billion to be exact. In the last year alone, companies accrued $65.6 billion worth of unused PTO that must be paid out when employees retire or leave the company.
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While vacation liability isn't a $224 billion bill American companies have to foot tomorrow, the growing pool of accrued PTO is indicative of a cultural and financial issue that companies can't readily ignore.
It's clear that workaholism isn't working for employees or employers. So, what can HR and company leaders do to encourage people to take a break, already?
Don't Just Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk
Eurich advises leaders to think twice about the message they're sending to their team. "Most of the time, reasonable people know their employees can't be available around the clock " she says, "But what I see leaders do is say one thing and then themselves do another thing."
"A manager might say, 'I really want you guys to be out of here by 6,' but then she stays until 10pm every day." It's difficult to encourage employees to take a vacation when your last vacation was three years ago, or ask them to unplug when you're sending emails on the weekend. Not only do these actions send a confusing signal, they impact your own well-being as a leader.
Create a Culture of Comfort
Creating a great place to work isn't necessarily related to how many perks you offer on the job—it's also important to help employees find work-life balance outside of the office. "You see these companies that are supposedly amazing places to work," Eurich says, "They get all this publicity for having personal chefs and free massages, but what I'm noticing is particularly in those companies, there is an expectation that you basically live there or you're constantly available."
She encourages leaders to take an honest assessment of the work culture. Free lunch might not make up for working 60 hours a week.
Offer Small Outlets for Stress
Even the smallest breaks can serve as a mental reboot: A recent Stanford Study showed that walking boosts creativity by up to 60% and researchers at the University of Illinois found that brief breaks improve focus.
Providing simple opportunities to release stress, Eurich says, can help employees start taking these power breaks. "I had a boss that had a small golfing set outside of his office and he would say, 'If you're having a rough day, come play put-put outside of my office.' And I noticed I did that a couple times a week when I wouldn't have [taken those breaks] before."
Taking breaks are much easier said than done, but leading by example and creating an environment conducive to time off can go a long way in preventing burnout (and more billions of dollars in unused PTO). As Eurich cautions, it's important to remember that "work is a marathon, not a sprint."
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